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Impact of student demonstrations

Voice of America - April 18, 1998

Daily student protests against Indonesia's government have rocked campuses across the country for the last two months. Jenny Grant, in Jakarta, looks at what impact the demonstrations might have on a country in the midst of an economic crisis.

The Indonesian government is facing massive student demonstrations for the first time since students erupted off their university campuses in the 1970s.

Unlike the student demands of 20 years ago, against foreign investment by countries like Japan and the United States, the students are now shouting against the failures of their own government.

For the first time, president Suharto appears deeply troubled by the student rallies, and his new cabinet is confused about what approach to take.

Rallies calling for lower food prices, a clean (honest) cabinet and an end to corruption, are splashed across the newspapers and appear on every evening news bulletin.

A political scientist at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, Dewi Anwar Fortuna, says if the student movement escalates it could threaten the government and deter already cautious foreign investors. "The students will keep the heat on the government. it can also become a distraction if the students... if the student movement gets out of hand, that will divide the government and they will have to concentrate more on the security aspect."

The military is a key factor in controlling the demonstrations and ensuring they do not become violent. Military chiefs say they are concerned the students could join up with a wider group – poor citizens and low-paid workers – in a peoples' power movement that would shake national stability. Housewives in the East Java city of Surabaya joined a protest last week by 10- thousand students demanding the government lower food prices.

The head of the University of Indonesia Senate, Rama Pratama, says students are trying to warn the government there could be a social meltdown if they do not reform the political and economic system. "Just wait, the people will get angry and the country will blow up. and we don't want that, but we tell the government it will happen if they are not serious. it is not only us who can blow up the situation, but also hungry people, unemployed people will be angry and because we don't want that to happen, we tell the government to get serious."

President Suharto has urged the students to return to their studies and end their protests. but he has also sanctioned the use of repressive military force against the youths.

Military analyst salim said says it may not be long before there is bloodshed. "I don't rule out the possibility (of bloodshed). it could happen because a third party has engineered that to make things worse. it could also happen because the military is getting tired and their span of control weakens." Mr Said, who has been moderating talks this weekend between students and the military in Jakarta, says students have played an active role in changing Indonesian history. "They played a crucial role in ousting the country's first president, Sukarno, and supporting Mr Suharto's rise to power in 1965."

The 76-year-old president, re-appointed last month to his seventh consecutive term in office, can no longer afford to ignore the students' calls for reform.